ften used synonymously with artificial intelligence, robots possess a tangible form that distinguishes the field of robotics from AI. Embodied, robots present an unrivaled and rich set of potential interactions within a human environment. Their tangible form makes robots exponentially more complex than the AI tools used in data analytics, for example. It is also the reason for the slower progression in robotics research and development.

Creating Common Sense

Similar to humans, intelligent and interactive robots have to perceive their environment using basic human, albeit electronic, senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and even electronic tongues that can taste. Designed to interact with their environment in useful and efficient ways, robots can respond gently, with extended dexterity, or sometimes with a superhuman like forcefulness. Developers today design robots in such a way that their movements support specific intentions—such as search and rescue operations or industrial inspection. They also design to elicit human emotion. Creating robots that interact seamlessly within a human environment poses a very demanding and challenging task that requires both highly interdisciplinary and creative teams. It is only the appropriate combination and integration of appearance, sensing, intelligence, and interaction that will render a robot truly interactive.

As Natural as a Hummingbird

As humans interact with the world, we rely heavily on tactical and force-controlled movements performed intuitively and naturally. In fact, nature has always served as an ideal model for solving complex human problems. Today’s scientists, innovators, and engineers often rely on nature for inspiration. Researchers developing ETH Zurich’s ANYmal quadruped walking robot (Fig. 1) enhanced this robotic dog’s leg motors with a spring (Fig. 2). The spring absorbs the energy in each of ANYmal’s steps the same as human ankle joints and tendons absorb energy as we take a step forward or walk down steps. The deflection of the spring also measures the precise contact force of the robot - a crucial measurement for tactile interaction. This concept, inspired by nature, ensures ANYmal’s motors operate much the same as human muscles and the spring in human tendons work. It proved to render a more adaptive, robust, and efficient gait for this walking robot.

Figure 1: ANYmal, the walking quadruped with “soft” actuators. Image courtesy of ETH Zurich.

Similarly, the wonderful flight capacities of hummingbirds that flap their wings at about 80 times per second, inspired ETH Zurich robotics researchers to create, Voliro. Like a hummingbird that flies up, down, right, left, backwards, and even upside down all while collecting nectar, Voliro too is capable of omnidirectional flight. This extremely agile multicopter is also the first built for physical interaction with its environment. The drone hovers in any arbitrary orientation including upside down using its tilting arms. This novel drone research opens up a new world of interactivity and accessibility to places far from human reach (Fig. 3).

Figure 2: Concept of serial elastic actuation of a walking robot inspired by nature. Image courtesy of ETH Zurich.

Interactive Art

Most art, from ancient to modern times, consists of motionless moments in time rendered in paint or stone. Robotics offers the emotional connectivity of moving and interactive systems. Pioneering artists in residence at Wyss Zurich, Aparna Rao and Søren Pors explore how animatronics suggest responsive behaviors in animated objects. Embedding artists in a translational research center, one in which robotics represents an important focus, enables creative solutions that may not occur in the highly disciplined and logical minds of excellent mechanical engineers. The walking canvases, part of project PATHOS, illustrate the high degree of nuance in robotic animation. Specifically, the canvases demonstrate how life-like animatronics suggest the complex inner emotional states of inanimate objects making this a spontaneous and personalized medium of expression. The canvases make their public debut in ETH Zurich’s exhibition in Davos during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2020.

Figure 3: The Voliro drone taking measurements with a contact sensor on a chimney. Image courtesy of ETH Zurich.

Nature and experimentation with robots guide us in creating “living” machines that embody a rich and diverse interaction far beyond artificial intelligence trapped in computers and the cloud. The rich potential for motion capabilities that makes robots so fascinating, and sometimes a bit scary, presents a wonderful challenge for creativity, research, and design.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.